Premier League’s sol­i­dar­ity threat­ened like never be­fore

Football’s power-bro­kers are pur­su­ing plans that may en­cour­age the rich­est clubs to put them­selves first

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Sport / Covid Crisis - Sam Wal­lace Chief Football Writer

Elite clubs will ques­tion why they need to sup­port en­ti­ties who can­not sup­port them­selves

‘It’s not sci­ence fic­tion” protested Gianni In­fantino, the Fifa pres­i­dent, as he dis­cussed the lat­est out­break of blue-sky think­ing at his Swiss in­sti­tute for bad ideas: this time re­ar­rang­ing the football cal­en­dar into blocks of sin­gle com­pe­ti­tions.

In an in­ter­view this month, mod­estly sched­uled to mark his 50th birth­day, he pro­posed play­ing all the do­mes­tic league games glob­ally at the same time, then cross-bor­der club football and fi­nally in­ter­na­tional football. All of them as­signed a win­dow of op­por­tu­nity to ac­com­plish what needed to be done be­fore the game moved on to the next show. So out would go the old tra­di­tion of the in­te­gra­tion of the sea­son be­tween league, cup, con­ti­nen­tal com­pe­ti­tion and in­ter­na­tion­als.

If it sounds rather like the football equiv­a­lent of ar­rang­ing one’s book­shelves ac­cord­ing to the colour of the spines, then bear in mind that in the chaos of this Covid era there is much up for grabs and many pre­pared to grab it. The high-priest of the Euro­pean su­per league, An­drea Agnelli, ad­dressed his own con­stituency at the an­nual meet­ing of the Euro­pean Club As­so­ci­a­tion this month, paint­ing a very bleak pic­ture of football’s fi­nances, and pro­ject­ing losses of €4bil­lion (£3.66bil­lion) over the sea­son across Europe’s top 20 leagues.

This is fer­tile ground for the Ju­ven­tus chair­man, who would like to usher in his new ex­panded Cham­pi­ons League plan af­ter 2024, when ex­ist­ing broad­cast deals ex­pire, as much as In­fantino wishes to launch his ex­panded Fifa Club World Cup at the same time.

Agnelli spoke of “deep scars” in football’s fi­nanc­ing and where there is un­cer­tainty there is op­por­tu­nity for those seek­ing to re­make football their own way.

It has been a bad week for the Premier League and its more dys­func­tional sib­ling the English Football League, with the Gov­ern­ment’s new lock­down mea­sures rul­ing out the re­turn of fans to sta­di­ums un­til March.

A long win­ter awaits and, as with the March sus­pen­sion of the pre­vi­ous sea­son, there is ex­tra­or­di­nary pres­sure once again on the old fis­sures in the game, the rifts that or­di­nar­ily grind along at a glacial pace.

The pro­posed bail-out of the EFL by the

Premier

League, with the for­mer plead­ing a £250mil­lion deficit, is one such is­sue that threat­ens the sol­i­dar­ity of the 20 clubs in the top di­vi­sion and their rev­enue-shar­ing model.

There will be many Premier League clubs who feel that hand­ing money to some of the own­ers of EFL clubs is only one step re­moved, as sen­si­ble busi­ness strate­gies go, from in­vest­ing in uni­corn tears, moon-cheese or the goalscor­ing of Roberto Soldado. Once again it will cause those with the high­est costs to ques­tion why they are tethered to a sys­tem that obliges them to sup­port com­mer­cial en­ti­ties who can­not sup­port them­selves.

The Premier League seems re­signed to its EFL bail-out, and it is in­evitable that even this uniquely cor­po­rate en­tity will be forced to ac­knowl­edge it must come to the res­cue – al­beit with con­di­tions at­tached. But that also cre­ates an op­por­tu­nity for those who would seek to di­vide the league and es­pe­cially tar­get the top clubs who would prove so use­ful to wider Euro­pean or global projects of the kind that Agnelli and In­fantino have dis­cussed.

Once again, the league’s sol­i­dar­ity is threat­ened by the de­mands be­ing made of it and the ques­tion begs it­self whether this col­lec­tive en­deav­our, with all its im­per­fec­tions, can be kept in­tact through another pe­riod of in­sta­bil­ity. The Daily Tele­graph re­ports to­day that the big­gest deficit in this pan­demic, in terms of cash alone, be­longs to Manch­ester United with Covid losses of al­most £140mil­lion, fol­lowed by the rest of the no­tional big six. These are the same clubs that, in the past, have at least lis­tened to the pro­pos­als of those who would carve up Euro­pean and

world football to cre­ate a new con­sen­sus in favour of the wealthy, and one that has been en­thu­si­as­ti­cally pur­sued by Agnelli. Be­fore there has been scep­ti­cism from the English game’s big­gest clubs about com­pro­mis­ing the com­mer­cial suc­cess of the Premier League for an al­ter­na­tive that is un­tried and so un­pop­u­lar amongst their core sup­port.

You have to won­der how they feel now, fac­ing up to six months with­out the re­turn of sup­port­ers to their own big sta­di­ums. The ex­pec­ta­tion from gov­ern­ment that the wealth­i­est clubs help the rest of the game re­flects the pub­lic view and on the face of it sounds sen­si­ble, as those same clubs once again in­vest in big trans­fer fees and con­tracts. But that does not mean that their own fi­nances are not stretched, or in­deed that the clubs are happy to do so.

No one knows for sure what is com­ing in the spring of 2022 when the de­ci­sions are ex­pected to be made as to how football looks post-2024.

Rather like the loneli­est child in the class, In­fantino in­au­gu­rated his own club in Novem­ber 2019, what he has op­ti­misti­cally called the World Football Club As­so­ci­a­tion.

Real Madrid ap­pear to have joined and one can only as­sume that In­fantino’s plans for a bi­en­nial Club World Cup in the prime sum­mer slot of his new world cal­en­dar are the cen­tre­piece.

Mean­while, to­day’s Uefa ex­ec­u­tive com­mit­tee meet­ing will fea­ture a speech from the or­gan­i­sa­tion’s pres­i­dent, Alek­sander Ce­ferin, who des­per­ately does not want to be re­mem­bered as the man who lost con­trol of the Cham­pi­ons League.

He knows that he will be obliged to de­liver a com­pe­ti­tion in the fu­ture that of­fers more games, more cer­tainty around places and more money to the most pow­er­ful clubs in Europe.

If that is to be the case then the big­gest Premier League clubs will need more space in their sched­ules to ac­com­mo­date those fix­tures. The frag­ile al­liance of the 20 clubs is likely to be tested like never be­fore over the next six months and only time will tell what those in­volved con­sider to be sacro­sanct and what they say can be dis­carded.

Grandiose: Gianni In­fantino has unique views on how to or­gan­ise world football

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